On October 5, 2011, the 800-foot long container ship Rena struck the Astrolabe reef off New Zealand’s Port of Tauranga, causing 88 containers to fall into the sea and the release of a fuel oil spill estimated at 360 metric tons. Cleanup crews have recovered much of the oil, but at least a thousand seabirds have been killed.
It is hard to conceive how a tragedy of this magnitude could possibly occur, given that all these reefs are charted and stored in the maps contained in modern GPS systems.
Rescuers are cleaning the birds with canola oil to remove the fuel oil. Then, they are cleansed with detergent. Each bird cleaning requires about 250 gallons of water and takes about a half hour. This process eliminates the natural oils in the birds’ feathers, which makes them vulnerable to hypothermia.
A knitting shop called The Yarn Kitchen put out an appeal for knitters worldwide to make tiny sweaters for the little blue penguins most affected by the spill. Volunteers from far and wide responded to the call and produced a deluge of colorful sweaters, some of them embellished with environmental messages. The sweaters serve a dual purpose – to keep the birds warm until their natural oils are replenished, but more importantly, they prevent the birds from preening themselves and ingesting toxic oil residues.
All was not bad news for the birds. Seagulls were delighted when a broken container full of partially cooked hamburgers washed up on the shores of the Bay of Plenty and disgorged its contents onto the beach.
Illustration by Kim Harris
Story by Don Rudisuhle